As passengers squeeze into ever smaller seats for increasingly delayed flights, a war has been raging for between airline manufacturers. In America’s corner we have the Boeing Company, the world’s biggest Airplane manufacturer. In Europe’s corner we have AirBus, an amalgamation of Europe’s national airline industries from the 20th century. Each company had a different vision for the air travel industry in the 21st century. Ironically, both firms may have lost!
For decades, the 747 jet dominated national and international air travel. It was a revolutionary plane when it was launched in 1970, and became one of the most purchased airplanes in the world. Today, the design is old, the engines are inefficient, and it is limited to landing at larger airports. The world ha been waiting for a new solution.
But what sort of plane can replace the 747? The 747 defined the JUMBO jet. Larger than the earlier competition, it made air travel affordable. After the 747, everyone could afford to fly! Airbus had an idea for a 21st century sequel, the double-decker A380. By using two decks, the plane could be kept shorter and narrower, and still hold between 525 to 850 passengers (depending on configuration).
Boeing had other ideas. Boeing initially planned on building something similar to the A380, but quickly changed those plans. They could build a super-jumbo like the A380, but market data change their plans. Air travel was increasing, and delays at major airports were getting longer. The biggest airports were reaching the maximum number of daily flights, and a super-jumbo could only land at a few airports. Knowing this, Boeing looked at all of the smaller airports that still had available capacity, and focused on two planes, the 737 and the 787.
Boeing’s latest-greatest plane was the 787 jumbo, and their “market refresh” was the smaller 737 plane. The 787 was an all new, high-tech flagship plane that could replace the 747 in larger airports. The 737 is a venerable line of planes that were first launched in 1968, two years before the 747. These planes were upgraded to digital equipment, and new high-efficiency engines. They could still use many older spare parts, the repair crew didn’t need retraining and pilots could carry over their skills (and seniority) from previous 737 models. At least, that’s the way it was supposed to work.
The A380 is already out of the running. Boeing was right! Building a plane that can only land in the big airports was a bad idea. Big airports cannot get permission from their neighbors to expand in size, hours, or daily landings. New orders have not met expectations, and it was recently announced that the last A380 will be built and delivered in 2021.
Boeing should have been the big winner. But as everyone knows by now, the 737 is the subject of intense scrutiny following two fatal crashes. The “upgrades” were the problem. New engines make the plane “nose up” slightly, and can cause the engines to stall, crashing the plane. Software was supposed to fix the problem and adjust the say the plane flies. Keeping the “feel” of the plane remains the same from older planes to the latest upgrades. But the software may not have worked the way it was supposed to. Pilots did not receive extensive retraining since, “all 737’s fly the same way”. Automated features may “over steer” the planes, causing the crashes.
But there may be an even greater problem… over-delegation . Normally the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) provides oversight of the development and construction of new planes. And after the first crash, the FAA might have made more demands before letting the planes back into the air. But in an age of increasing delegation and disinterest in government control, the FAA handed control over more safety management and reporting to Boeing. After the second crash in less than a year, will the FAA continue to allow Boeing to fix it’s own problems?
Meanwhile, the 787 has had problems of it’s own. Back in 2012 there were electrical fires, which were blamed on defective batteries. Last year one plane had a double engine failure. Luckily, this happened after the plane landed. Then, last week, multiple 787’s were grounded either due to problems with engines and GPS.
The 21st century opened with three innovative commercial airline designs. One is already gone. One is fully grounded. The last, is partially grounded, but has had repeated problems. Hmmm… I wonder what a bus ticket costs!